Maps at your fingertips: The challenges and future of tactile maps

This isn’t the first time Frank Welte finds himself in front of an audience that doesn’t know how to read a map. He stands up and presses the thick 11” X 11.5 paper map across his torso on a diagonal. The right hand holds one corner steady; with the left he navigates a slice of San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood.

“The first thing I’ll do,” he tells the assembled graphic designers, user experience experts and urban planners during a two-hour workshop, “is start at the upper left, to see what the title of the map is, find the scale and locate north.” This three-page black and white map shows the area around Market Street where Welte, who is blind, works as an accessibility media specialist at LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Without adding a crinkle to his blue dress shirt, he speeds to the center of the map for the “you are here” cluster of dots in a circle, finds Market street and starts tracing parallel streets, using the key on the pages behind it to locate street names.

Frank Welte critiques a tactile campus map.

Participants at the workshop, held during San Francisco Design week, learned that just how many people could benefit from tactile maps depends on how you define vision loss, as well as when the survey was taken. An estimated 25.5 million adult Americans (or about 10 percent) reported they either “have trouble” seeing, even when wearing glasses or contact lenses, or that they are blind or unable to see at all, according to 2016 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) data. Worldwide, there are 253 million visually impaired people.

Navigating your surroundings, however, is a basic right that isn’t yet recognized even by the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). However, to participate in today’s society you need access to information, says Greg Kehret, director of LightHouse’s Media and Accessible Design Laboratory (MAD Lab). Whether it’s using a microwave, the washing machine, or an ATM, the blind or visually impaired get “cordoned off through bad design.” Braille and tactile maps have proven useful but until now have been difficult and costly to design, manufacture and distribute.

The San Francisco-based nonprofit, LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, wants to change that with Tactile Maps Automated Production (TMAP), a tool for on-demand tactile street maps. Developed with the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, TMAP is an accessible, web-based app that uses Google maps search information and OpenStreetMap data to generate tactile and visual representations of streets centered on a user-specified location. Using design parameters to ensure tactile legibility, TMAP quickly and cheaply generates tactile map files compatible with a variety of printers and embossers.

“Too many rectangles!”

The lack of awareness about the importance of tactile maps has created some design challenges along the way. For starters, there are no established universal symbols for these maps. “If you put your hands on a tactile image and you don’t have any training, it can feel like just a mass of lines and be very confusing. We’re here to make it less so,” says BJ Epstein, a project manager at MAD Lab. Using the idea of abstract concepts rather than mimicking real-world objects, the team has crafted tactile maps and wayfinding tools for clients including UC Berkeley, Bay Area Rapid Transit, Calgary Transit System and a number of music festivals.

Detail of a TMAP, via LightHouse.

Take, for example, a typical transit station: “There are rectangles for signs, there are rectangles for shelters, there are rectangles for benches. That’s too many rectangles! So circles represent benches,” Epstein says, adding that they aim to keep symbols consistent across projects. Scale is also less important than it would be in a traditional map, she says. A ticket machine might be about the same size as a staircase – because all the symbols are designed to fit on a fingertip. “We want to use symbols that aren’t bigger than that because that makes it harder to read. Smaller,” she adds, “and it’s harder to discern differences.”

Then it came time to test the skills of workshop participants, with a five-page booklet with the phrase “Do not open. NO PEEKING!” printed across the top. Eyes scrunched shut, we sat at round tables first trying to distinguish basic shapes before moving on to a simplified tactile street map. After failing to successfully identify all but the most basic shapes and mistaking a staircase for a taxi stand, your correspondent felt a rush of appreciation for people who must rely on tactile maps.

“The blind and visually impaired don’t just want empathy, they want practical solutions,” Greg Kehret says. “By showing what’s possible and making it available to as many people as possible, we’re changing expectations around what is reasonable accommodation, really raising the bar above and beyond.”

TMAPS maps are available online at
Along with three versions of the map (simple, moderate and dense map scale) buyers get a tactile map key and an introduction to using tactile maps.

This article first appeared in the September 2018 edition of “Calafia,” the California Map Society journal.




Building resiliency maps for Indonesia

Mappers in Semarang. Via Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team Indonesia.

Landslides. Motorcycle accidents. Mistaken for terrorists. These are some of the challenges faced by a team of local mappers in Indonesia working on disaster preparedness projects in three cities.

These speed bumps only make Harry Mahardhika chuckle. A training officer at Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team Indonesia, he still managed to hand over atlases to government officials in Jakarta, Surabaya and Semarang. The printed maps show what he calls “lifeline infrastructure” —  shelters, reservoirs, banks, hospitals, fire stations and the like. His team also provides workshops to officials on best practices for verifying map data plus training manuals and documentation on mapmaking.

Geography marks Indonesia for special attention. The world’s largest island country perches above the “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin. The consequences can be devastating: the death toll from the most recent earthquake and tsunami on Sulawesi island climbed past 2,000.

That makes this kind of resiliency mapping project even more important. “Governments need community and the community also needs government,” Mahardhika says. These mapping efforts were backed by USAID, the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), Pacific Disaster Centre (PDC), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Indonesia National Disaster Management Agency. The toolkit included OpenStreetMap, Open Data Kit and OpenMapKit.

Pushing paper

In October 2016, Mahardhika and team spent three months mapping Surabaya, one of the oldest port cities in Southeast Asia with a core population of three million. The setup served as a template for mapping the other two cities. The first step? Pinpoint the right government officials and obtain permits. If you don’t, “you will be seen as bad people or terrorists if you are mapping an area without permission.” Having a permit didn’t necessarily stop questions from skeptical locals.  When push came to shove, mappers were flanked by local workers from a disaster agency to quell fears and back up bona fides.

Gimme shelter

Deciding just what counts as lifeline infrastructure depends on the city. For example, in Jakarta, small places of worship were left off the survey because they usually don’t serve as emergency shelters but these same type of mosques were mapped in Semarang where they offer vital protection. “It’s important for us to know before mapping,” he says. And one more reason why building a community of local mappers is important.
“Locals have really important knowledge of the city, if we just sent people out who like mapping and OSM they’d spend most of the time lost.”  Mappers, some recruited from local universities, needed only basic computer and internet know-how. A mapathon was also held to boost skills.

It takes two

In the two smaller cities, teams were made up of two mapping supervisors, four quality assurance people and 16 on data entry. That number bumped up to one extra QA person and a total of 20 on data entry duty in Jakarta. In the field teams of two worked best. The ideal pairing? A more experienced mapper paired with a newbie, often a person with more granular local knowledge. Mappers can cover a lot of ground in pairs and, should quibbles arise, can be worked out quickly. “We don’t want drama in this project,” he adds.

Jakarta before and after the mapping project via

Motor city

The mapping journey covers a lot of ground. Motorcycles are a necessity in places like Jakarta where traffic can eat up to 90 minutes to cover three miles. Teams set out first with permits, plus survey maps and satellite images to meet with village representatives. These meetings also serve to update and verify boundaries on a district or neighborhood level, Mahardhika says. Once these are set, the team hits the road again to map the critical and priority points in the area.

The data collected feeds into OpenStreetMap with customized presets on the JOSM editor and uploaded to the server. Then it’s pored over to check both topology and tags before review by a supervisor. Once verified, the supervisor exports the data and a printed version, the atlas, is given back to local government. Using the data collected, the team also presented officials with two thematic maps: evacuation routes for Jakarta and hazards in Semarang.

The results? In five months mapping Jakarta, over 1.5 million buildings and 24,965 ‘lifeline’ points were mapped. In Semarang over the course of four months 482,740 buildings and 11,048 points of interest were added and in Surabaya in three months some 643,933 buildings and 4,417 points of interest were added. The HOT team also jumped in during the most recent earthquake to map the hardest-hit areas in Sulawesi. Up next, the HOT Indonesia team will continue partnering with Facebook to fill out the country’s road network.

Catch his full 30-minute presentation at the recent State of the Map Detroit conference here.


Adventures in data cleaning: Did the New York Times undercount risky San Francisco skyscrapers?

It looks like the New York Times may have undercounted the number of risky skyscrapers in downtown San Francisco, 48 instead of 39. It’s a seemingly small difference – 20 percent if you do the math – but it’s significant if you consider how many people work in these large buildings. A June 15 story focused on steel moment buildings cited in a USGS report.

I made a quick map using the addresses from the NYT story, then I wanted to make one that included photos of the buildings. This time I went directly to the report, noticing that the first address wasn’t listed in the story, it seemed like a good idea to see if there were any more discrepancies.


To check how I got them:

  • The USGS report, starting on page 360, in .PDF
  • The .KML file I made, for more fact-checking and map making (pretty please send links to your maps or put them in the comments – I’m a casual mapper, using new tools and working quickly!)
  • Here are the additional nine addresses from the report that weren’t in the NYT story:
  1. The Mills Building, 221 Montgomery Street
  2. 225 Bush Street
  3. 140 Montgomery Street
  4. 120 Montgomery Street
  5. 45 Fremont Street
  6. 55 2nd Street
  7. 555 Mission Street
  8. 611 Folsom Street
  9. 680 Folsom Street

The clumsy adventure

To start, I downloaded the 454-page .PDF, then extracted five pages with the buildings listed by using the >Print>Pages>Save as .PDF function in Preview for Mac. Then I converted the .PDF to .CSV with Sejda. After that, it was time for Terminal to merge the extracted data from those pages into one file with the command:

cat *.csv >merged.csv

Still too messy to be useful without a lot of tedious cleanup:

So I tried the quickest and dirtiest way I know: copy the table from the .PDF into Word, then from Word (where it’s recognized as a table) copy it into Excel.

There are a couple hundred buildings listed, but the ones cited in the story are steel moment frames. Erected before a 1994 building code outlawed a flawed welding technique, they harbor particular risk in a quake of magnitude seven or higher.

From the USGS report: Steel moment frame listed as “Steel MF,” “Steel moment frame” and “MF.”

From there it was a question of sorting the buildings listed as “Steel MF,” noting that a couple are listed alternatively as “Steel moment frame” and one as simply as “MF.” Messy messy messy: also, totally typical. (There were also about 15 more listed as Steel MF in combination with some other reinforcement, since it would require more reporting to figure out if they’re as risky, these were left out.)

Then I checked the addresses against the story, added polygons for the nine new addresses to the previous uMap, downloaded it as a .KML file and started playing around in Google Maps.

The resulting map is a little disappointing. For starters, the polygons from uMap (which uses OpenStreetMap) don’t jibe that well with Google. As for the images – since the real a-ha if you live or work in San Francisco is how many of these buildings you’re in or around – I always forget how bad these are in the noob version of Google Maps. When you’re editing in the map, they are Polaroid-style pop-ups that resize whatever pic you throw in. The published version looks nothing like that and the overall effect with these building shots (all vertical) is horrific. Ugh. There’s no way to resize the window from this version of Google Maps – the alternatives are Google Fusion tables (which wouldn’t solve the problem here since AFAIK it works with points, not polygons) or  programming via the Google Maps API.

Why this happened

So how did the New York Times undercount the number of especially shaky high rises? Going on my experience with newsrooms (long) and with data (short but painful) my first guess is that the USGS mistakenly gave the Times an Excel or .CSV file that was different from what ended up in the final report.

The reporter knew there were enough buildings to warrant a story, somewhere around 40, the graphics person had the file, made the map and those numbers were plugged into the story and fact checked without going back to the published report.

Or there was some glitch between the formats – given how annoying the process of getting information from .PDF into anything – it’s easy enough. Data cleaning is the least interesting, most tedious part of any project. In this case, if I’m right, there are 20 percent more risky buildings than originally reported.

A quickie map of San Francisco’s earthquake prone skyscrapers

See full screen

See full screen – search for San Francisco if you see a world map.

The New York Times recently ran a story about San Francisco high rises – mostly downtown and South of Market – with steel frames that harbor particular risk in a quake of magnitude seven or higher. About 40 of these skyscrapers, erected before a 1994 building code outlawed a flawed welding technique, were cited in an April USGS report.

It’s one of those stories that could’ve used in interactive map at its core, but instead (it’s the news business, kid!) the map was a small, static graphic (see below) and the story ended with a list of the addresses.

Image courtesy NYT.

So here’s a simple map of those 39 steel moment-frame buildings. A few necessary caveats: this is the handiwork of a casual mapper trying out a new tool. I’ve been looking for a way to use OpenStreetMap to make personalized maps and spotted some earthquake maps from the Japanese OSM community with uMap, so it seemed worth a try. It was heavy going for a map made on the fly – the polygon tool was clunky and importing the list as a cleaned up .CSV wasn’t happening.

Still, a few things pop out: A few of these risky buildings are also near construction sites. In OSM, these are shown in sage green. (The light green represents parks.)

The struggle to use the uMap polygon tool is real. This is a closeup of 550 California Street, with a 19-story office building under construction nearby.

The Folsom Bay Tower will be a 39-story, 422-foot (129 m) residential skyscraper.

Park Tower at Transbay will have 43 stories, First & Mission’s Oceanwide Center features 636-foot-tall tower on Mission at First Street and a 910-foot-tall tower on the opposite corner on First Street.

And much like the reporter, shocked to discover the NYT offices are in one of these buildings, there were a few a-ha moments. A family member works in one and I’ve been inside at least a handful recently – an event at Autodesk, a movie at Embarcadero Center, a Wikimedia meetup, met a friend staying at the Marriott, emerged from the Montgomery Street Station in front of one three or four times, etc.

It’s an unscientific sample size of one (well, two if you count the reporter) but would wager that most people who live or work in San Francisco are around, if not inside, these buildings frequently.

Pompeian red? It’s actually ochre, researchers say

Pompeii: all about ochre?

Those rich reds adorning paintings in Pompeii were originally ochre —  Italian researchers say they now think that sensuous Pompeian red is the result of an accident.

Researchers at the national science council (CNR) say the original signature color at the ill-fated city of Pompeii was probably yellow –  ochre to be specific.

Before Mount Vesuvius blew its top in 79 A.D. and buried the city, it emitted high-temperature gas which turned the original yellow color that dark red. It’s not an entirely new discovery – ochre was also the main color at Herculaneum, sister city also buried by Vesuvius.

“Thanks to the investigations we have ascertained that the symbolic color of the archaeological sites in Campania is the result of the action of high temperature gas leakage which preceded the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.,” says Sergio Omarini of CNR.
“Experts already knew about the color alteration, but this research makes it finally possible to quantify to the extent of it.”

Researchers went back to texts by Pliny and Vitruvius to see how their contemporaries made red – cinnabar, mercury compound, red lead, lead compound and the rarest and most expensive pigments, mainly used in the paintings.

To check out the composition in the paintings, scientists used a non-invasive X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer that reveals the presence of chemical elements that exclude red lead and cinnabar – leading them to believe ochre was the original color.

Somehow Pompeian ochre just doesn’t lend the same tone.

Got a buck? Help out real-life Da Vinci Code quest for lost Leonardo

This is just about as cheap a thrill as they get: by pledging even just a dollar, you can help fund a project to find a lost Leonardo Da Vinci fresco in Florence, Italy.

Photographer Dave Yoder has been working on for a number of years  on a quest funded by the National Geographic Society to uncover The Battle of Anghiari in Palazzo Vecchio.

Because of the complications of doing just about anything in Italy – this involves going between ancient palazzo walls after all — it requires expensive expertise.

He’s put up a Kickstarter page to fund the sci-fi movie-worthy gamma camera needed to locate the painting which probably lies between the walls. (It seems Vasari couldn’t bring himself to cover Leonardo’s masterpiece when commissioned to paint over it in 1563).

Dave is a friend and it’s a fascinating project – one I also enjoyed reporting on — so I hope you’ll consider kicking in what you might spend on a cappuccino. Higher pledges $35 and up will earn you a digital e-book or prints of the project.

You can check out his pics on the project so far here.

To donate or for more information, see Kickstarter

Check out Soundtracker, like Pandora for Italian music

As someone who has a hard time remembering what it was like to listen to music before you could hit “shuffle” or curate a digital playlist, I’m a big fan of automated music recommendation and Internet radio service Pandora.

But that streaming service offers almost no Italian music, whether you want classic folk, pop power ballads or moody dubs in dialect.

Enter Soundtracker,  launched in 2010 by two Italian entrepreneurs. Best part: it offers a lot more than just Italian music and the interface is in English.

Register for the site (it’s free) and start listening to artists you know before stone-stepping to those you don’t.

Start with Pino Daniele and you’ll soon be listening to Quintorigo, Almamegretta, 99 Posse and Bandabardo’.

Not sure how the algorithm works, but  it seems a little more freewheeling than Pandora — starting with 70s melodic rocker with a social conscience Fabrizio De’ Andre station got me to an aggro hip-hop number from Caparezza in under four tracks.

You can also download it as an app for your iPhone, Windows Phone 7 and, if you’re so inclined, share your location and tracks with your friends.

Buon ascolto!

Social Media? Italians Prefer Chatting in Cafes

If you’ve spent any time in Italy, the results of a new survey won’t surprise you: Italians still prefer socializing in person, usually at the neighborhood cafe, to social media.

Some 1,200 people polled by apéritif maker Sanbitter — via Facebook — found that most Italians still prefer to discuss the matters of the day in person at a cafe first before heading online to update their far-flung friends and relatives about it.

What are Italians hashing out over  caffe’ macchiato or a glass of Prosecco before tweeting about it?

Nearly half (48%) are talking politics, 42% discuss sports (read: soccer), while work, gossip and shopping are about the same (37%, 35%, 33% respectively). Last but not least, movies 25%.

Social media will get a strong foothold in the boot country, probably sooner rather than later. There are already more cell phones than Italians and the national penchant for updating via SMS messages has produced everything from poetry contests to price checks and charity efforts.

And, let’s not forget, the Italian fascination with social media led to the first movie ever about Facebook, a 2009 romantic comedy of errors called “Feisbum.”

Caravaggio’s Bacchus Seduces in Hi-Res Imagery

By Nicole Martinelli Tourists have long crowded in museums to admire Caravaggio’s Bacchus, but a new 3.4 billion-pixel image of the painting allows for an amazingly detailed look at an old master’s work from your computer screen.

It’s the first in a series of super-high-resolution digital versions of masterpieces from Italy’s Uffizi Gallery, including Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and the Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci.

This image of Bacchus makes Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s revolutionary realism — as seen in the gritty fingernails of his reclining model in the sensual painting nicknamed “drunk Bacchus” — easy to zoom in on and linger over.

Minute details usually mulled over by art historians, such as the rumored self-portrait of the artist reflected in the wine decanter, are just a few clicks away. The Tuesday launch is a kind of love letter to the Baroque bad boy, believed born on this day in 1571.

It’s the latest project from HAL9000, a company specializing in art photography that captured a high-res version of Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper three years ago.

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Italy’s New Driving Laws: Go Faster, Just Don’t Drink

The Italian government recently passed a series of strict new driving laws that will affect locals and tourists on the roads in the Bel Paese.

A few of the new rules to keep in mind:

  • DUIs. No more jail time for drivers with a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.08 to 0.05 (already stricter than many places, including the US) but fines are a lot heftier, ranging from 500 to 2,000 euros. (In lieu of jail time, there are plans to institute community service and driver’s ed courses.) Those fines double if you cause an accident and your car can also be impounded for up to 180 days. If you cause an accident with a BAC of 1.5, your license will be suspended for two years. If your driver’s license is suspended for drunk driving, forget about driving anything for awhile. You can no longer drive a scooter or mini car (like an Ape), either. Drivers under age 21 or anyone who hasn’t had a license for more than three years cannot drink alcohol and drive — period. Fines for these drivers with a BAC of “zero to 0.5” start at 155 to 624 euros, double if they cause an accident and increase along with BAC levels exponentially.
  • Drugs. Jail time has been doubled for drivers found under the influence of drugs, from three to six months. Convicted drug users will have their licenses revoked — instead of suspended as previously — if they are found at fault in an accident. Police officers will also have drug-test kits with them instead of taking suspected drug users in for hospital tests.
  • Speed limits. The speed limit remains 130 km/h speed limit (80 mph) on most Italian autostrade, but shoots up to 150 km/h on autostrade with “tutor” speed limit cameras installed.
  • Scooters. Now required to wear goggles or eye protection “where necessary.”  Scooter licenses will also require a practice driving test.
  • Bicycles. Cyclists are now required to wear reflective vests at night.

As far as I know, the complete law hasn’t been published in English yet. The Transport Ministry has a complete list of all the articles in the law, you could do worse than use Google Translate on it meanwhile.

Photo used with a Creative Commons license, thanks to cruelgargle on flickr.